by Dr. Sarah C. Dunstan
The 15th January this year was the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg. A commemorative procession through the streets of Berlin to the Friedrichsfelde cemetery where she was buried attracted the attention of the international press and the last few days have seen a proliferation of articles on the activist. Luxemburg is one of the canonical thinkers in our project so I was curious to see how she would be popularly remembered. After all, as Patricia Owens observed in an earlier blog post, Luxemburg is one of the few women to appear in histories of international thought, even if these mentions are usually very brief.
One key theme seemed to underpin most of the commentary: Luxemburg was an exception to the rule. In a Guardian article on the German commemorations, Mark Jones from the University College Dublin described her as ‘a high achiever who rose in the very male-dominated world of Social Democratic politics.’ In Zeit Online, Robert Misik calls her ‘a kind of a miracle’ for making a name for herself at a time when women were supposed to take second seat to men, particularly in intellectual spheres. In their article in the Conversation, historians Ingrid Sharp and Corinne Painter underlined the way that Luxemburg is treated as exceptional. They used the anniversary as an opportunity to draw attention to female German revolutionaries who have been written out of history. Some, like the writer Lola Landau who envisioned the German revolution as an opportunity to create a new world order based on tenets of peace, left published, if overlooked, political tracts behind. The experiences and thought of other activists they work on, such as Martha Riedl and Hilde Kramer, are accessible primarily through their memoirs and eye-witness testimonies. None of these women, however, succeeded in establishing themselves within the masculine landscape of revolutionary thought in the same way as Luxemburg. This is not reflective of the significance of their contributions. But it does tell us something important about how we think about the categories of ‘thinkers’ and, in this case, ‘revolutionaries.’ One of the objectives of Sharp and Painter’s own research is to encourage us to stop thinking about revolutions and revolutionary thought as primarily male spaces.
There is a pattern here that is important for the research objectives of our Leverhulme project on Women and the History of International Thought. From the beginning we have argued that one of our driving questions is not ‘why women have not contributed to international thought?’ but ‘what happened to historical women’s international thought?’ We are interested not just in the recovery of thinkers who have been lost but, amongst other things, in understanding why they were lost in the first place. Key to creating such an understanding is thinking through the way we describe intellectuals such as Luxemburg as thinkers who have excelled despite masculine norms.
In a 2011 article in History & Theory, Herman Paul called for philosophers of history to look beyond the published output of historians. For Paul, histories of the discipline and its methodologies would be incomplete without the acknowledgement of what he called the ‘historian’s “doings.”’ Production of knowledge, he argued, begins to look quite different when we inquire into the ways that ‘scholarship is embedded in ‘practices’ or ‘epistemic virtues’ (Paul, 2011: 1). Such doings or virtues are embedded in ‘routinized forms of behavior,’ associated with each discipline. Paul’s thinking has a longer history. Italian Idealist Benedetto Croce made this argument for history when he insisted that historical process, like humanity, “has no being except in the making of it, and the making of it is never a making in general but a determinate and historical task.’ (Croce, 1955:274). Croce’s contemporary, the French historian March Bloch made a similar observation when he wrote in his Apologie pour I’histoire, ou , metier d’historien (1941) that historical scholarship required a particular ‘intellectual ethic.’
In order to answer the research problematic of ‘what happened to historical women’s international thought?’ then we need to establish an understanding of the ‘epistemic virtues’ and ‘intellectual ethics’ presumed to underpin the category of international thought and international thinkers. Gender is the silent cornerstone of scholarly practice. As we have seen in the commemorative comments about Luxemburg, the fact of her historical gender makes her the exception that proves the rule of masculine thinking.
Finding the answer to what happened to historical women’s international thought thus requires us to re-fashion how we think about the categories of ‘intellectual,’ ‘international’ and, indeed, ‘women.’ One way of doing this, is to be more expansive in our approach to where we look for international thought. Whilst activists like Rosa Luxemburg and Lola Landau or political scientists and historians such as Anna Julia Cooper and Merze Tate (whom Katharina Rietzler wrote about last month on this site) published within more conventional academic outlets, the contributions of other female thinkers to international thought appear in alternate mediums. The French-Congolese Senator, Jane Vialle, for example, published in the French language resistance journal Combat and the newspaper she founded herself, the Journal de l’Association des Femmes de L’Union Française. Likewise, the African American activist Eslanda Robeson published many of her pieces in magazines such as Asia and America and Challenge as well as in travel and ‘talk-book’ formats. As Kim Hutchings explained in her recent post on this site, another such medium often utilised by women thinkers is that of the novel. Intellectuals such as Bertha Von Suttner and Ayn Rand mapped out their visions of the international through this form. Expanding the canon of international thought to include such pathways is crucial to the intellectual project of the history of women’s international thought because of the sheer reach of gendered exclusion. This goes some way in explaining why Luxemburg and Tate have some, albeit peripheral and recent, presence in disciplinary histories in ways that other historical women do not.
But this still only gives us an insight into the published form of women’s thought. Writing about race, bell hooks has written about how “black folks have, from slavery on, shared in conversation with one another ‘special’ knowledge of whiteness gleaned from close scrutiny of white people. Deemed special because it was not a way of knowing that has been recorded fully in written material, its purpose was to help black folks cope and survive in a white supremacist society.” (hooks, 1992: 165). This notion of ‘ways of knowing’ can also help us understand how historical women experienced intellectual spheres at the intersection of race and gender. I think it is past time for intellectual history to include those ‘ways of knowing’ that are not recorded fully in written material yet shape the development and transition of ideas and thought. This is true for race and gender as well as sexual identity. Publication is shaped by factors that go beyond the authors desire to transmit a certain idea to the page: career trajectories, personal concerns and concepts of audience shape those ideas scholars feel are necessary or, in a different frame, permissible to share.
So what tools can we use as historians to gain greater insight into the production of knowledge, to ways of knowing that have shaped the field of international thought? One answer, I think, lies in oral history.
Historically, there has been a great deal of opposition to the use of oral history to draw out anything more than the personal recollections of an individual. Scholars attempting to write intellectual or disciplinary histories, as we are here in this project, have been far more circumspect in deploying them. Historian AJP Taylor famously described the practice as ‘old men drooling about their youth.’ (Harrison, 1972-3, 4.) In a more recent Guardian interview, Niall Ferguson declared that ‘Oral history is a recipe for complete misrepresentation because almost no one tells the truth, even when they intend to.’
Nevertheless, social historians, particularly those whose research concerns traditionally marginalised groups and individuals such as people of colour, members of the LGBTQ community and women, have long made the case for oral history in its value as an instrument of recovery. It provides a means through which the historical record can encompass their experiences despite a lack of textual records or as a counterpoint to material that privileges the perspectives of those in power. The Italian pioneer of oral history, Luisa Passerini, framed it in terms of the need to recognise ‘a subjective reality which enables us to write history from a novel dimension undiscovered by traditional historiography. This will avoid its nature of piling up facts and its failure to make explicit the political nature of all historical writing, while also presenting in the concept of subjectivity a tool of analysis peculiarly appropriate to social history.’ (Passerini, 1979: 86)
Oral sources then, might prove a way into an intellectual history of the discipline of International Relations which does not simply involve the recovery of ‘forgotten women’ but which teases out the structures of gender, racialization and class in shaping disciplinary genealogies. I contend here that oral history is a useful tool of intellectual history, not as a tool for establishing authorial intent but as a means of illuminating the specific context in which particular actors generated thought. It gives us an insight into institutional structures and cultures, the historically contingent notion of the IR practitioner or scholar or author or intellectual and their practices. When we place it alongside the recovery of materials not traditionally considered as spaces for international thought, then a much richer picture of the field will emerge.